The Hate That Makes Men Straight

Psychoanalysts probe the roots of homophobia

It has taken the APA 25 years to address homophobia in a public forum, and it has yet to label this hate an illness, if only because, as Cathcart quips, "you can't call half the U.S. Senate pathological." Leon Hoffman, who chairs the APA's committee on public information, puts it more gingerly: "The nonanalytic attitude toward homosexuality has prevented analysts from studying this question."

Until now. Psychoanalysts are finally begining to focus on homophobia, adding their perspective to the work social scientists have already done. The result is a new theory that regards homophpbia as a key component of male dominance. As the critic Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick writes in her landmark study Epistemology of the Closet, "male homosexual panic [is] the normal condition of male heterosexual entitlement."

Gratifying as it might be to see this syndrome diagnosed as a pathology, many students of homophobia would disagree. Antigay bias is "not a phobia in the clinical sense," researcher Gregory M. Herek insists. For one thing, it's too functional; for another, it doesn't necessarily spring from a secret desire. True, there is some clinical evidence that homophobes are more likely to be aroused by gay pornography than are other men, but according to Hoffman, that could be the result of an erection caused by anxiety. Yes, some guys go hard from fear.

Patrick Arrasmith

The idea that all phobes are closet cases has an appealing symmetry, but it doesn't begin to describe the web of impulses and beliefs that supports homophobia. NYU Medical Center's Donald Moss offers a more inclusive definition: "Homophobia will refer to the entire spectrum of conscious and unconscious fantasy-feeling-idea-sentiment" through which people are driven to avoid "all things sensed as homosexual." In the new scholarship, homophobia isn't just a symptom; it's a system.

As Herek notes, people who come easily to the word faggot share other traits. For instance, they are older than the general population, more religious, and more traditional in their thinking about sexual roles. If this sounds like Trent Lott, so be it, but the most important variable is not membership in the Republican party or even the Christian right; it's gender itself.

Straight men "manifest higher levels of prejudice" against gays than do straight women, Herek writes. That's obvious, but Herek's conclusion is not. He maintains that homophobia serves to affirm male identity through a rejection of what is deemed either unmanly or negating the importance of males. This explains why effeminate men and butch women are the most common victims of antigay violence. They threaten the terms of masculinity.

By this standard, homophobia is nothing more than a tool to shape a social category by defining its boundaries. (It's worth noting that the homo/hetero dichotomy dates from only a century ago, when doctors invented both terms, thereby recasting as a duality what had previously been regarded as a wide variety of sexual attitudes and appetites.) Categories have their uses, especially when it comes to establishing hierarchy, and just as racism assigns value to whiteness, homophobia favors heterosexuality. Yet its major function is not to reward men for desiring women. As Sedgwick notes, male power over the "exchange of goods, persons, and meaning" depends on male bonding, and that solidarity is enforced by the threat of what she calls "homophobic blackmail." In other words, the fear of being perceived as gay holds guys together.

This is why boys in a playground police each other for signs of "sissiness," why adolescents conjure up elaborate codes in which wearing a certain color on a certain day labels the unwitting offender as a homo, and why the disingenuous Seinfeld punch line "not that there's anything wrong with being gay" is so funny. The obsession with homosexual signs— and the people who embody them— is the key to an order that ranks men by their invulnerability to same-sex desire.

It follows that a guy who is insecure about his place in the pack will panic when propositioned by another guy, and that the fiercest phobes are the most desperate for admission to the bund. But few men outgrow this febrile quest. "We're always proving our manhood in front of other men," says Stony Brook sociologist Michael Kimmel, the author of Manhood in America: A Cultural History. "Homophobia is the fear that someone might get the wrong idea."

In his lectures, Kimmel uses a routine to make this point: "I ask guys to tell me how they know a man is gay. The way they walk, the way they always dress so nicely, what they do for a living. The women mention the same things, but they also say, 'I get suspicious if a guy is listening too much in a bar, or he isn't coming on to me.' All these stereotypes become a negative rule book that keeps men enacting traditional ideas about masculinity; it keeps them hitting on women and dressing like shit, and it keeps women wearing uncomfortable shoes and showing no technical competence. You can see how homophobia maintains the most rigid gender roles."

The irony is that this heterosexual code of conduct has nothing to do with loving women. But it has everything to do with fear of femininity.

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